New film childreN of the mountaiN is the tale of a mother’s love, hope, and acceptance for her child born with a cleft palate and cerebral palsy. In Ghana, children with such deformities face severe social stigma. Ayiba spoke to filmmaker Priscilla Annay, fresh off of childreN of the mountaiN’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival about the movie and the state of the Ghanaian film industry.
How did you come into the world of film?
I grew up surrounded by the arts in a family of artists. My mother illustrated and painted while my father was a sculptor, who taught sculpting across West Africa. He molded the biggest Virgin Mary in all of West Africa. I started painting at an early age, then began writing poetry and short stories. I wanted to see my writing come to life, so I transitioned into film.
What’s the central story behind childreN of the mountaiN?
I wanted to write a story about a mother who would do anything to find a cure for a child. An aunt who died when she was young due to illness inspired me. My mother told me stories of how my grandparents struggled to find a cure for her and went from hospital to hospital, from medicine man to medicine man, from pastor to pastor.
One of my friends wrote a short piece about her rationale behind why her daughter was born with Down syndrome. She felt it might have been her fault. I put these threads together to write a story about a woman with an imperfect child to let mothers all over the world know that it isn’t their fault that their children are born with health issues or deformities.
While it isn’t an adaptation, the title of the film was definitely inspired by her story, which was called “Babies of the Mountain.”
Why did you decide to stylize the spelling of the film’s name?
I thought it would give it a childlike feel. It’s a film about a child, and that’s similar to how a child might write. Additionally, if you look at the spelling, it’s not a proper way of writing—it’s somewhat deformed, and the film is also about a child with a deformity.
Why did you decide to make the film in Twi and Ewe?
The film is set in Ghana, and is about a woman who belongs to the lower class. To be truly realistic, it would have to be in the local dialect, not in English. Making it in Twi and Ewe also puts it closer to my Ghanaian audience. I’m Ewe and from the Volta Region, and most Ghanaian films are made in Twi and are set in Kumasi. No film has been made in Ewe, and I wanted to highlight part of my culture.
Almost everybody makes their movies in English, but I wanted to make a foreign language film. I have great dreams and aspirations for the film and I want it to go far. The Oscars have a foreign language category. If I had made my film in English, I would have been competing in a much larger pool with films with big budgets and stars.
Can you tell me about your casting process?
I live in New York, and when I was ready to shoot, I went to Ghana. My line producer brought in a lot of famous Ghanaian actors and actresses. I definitely wanted a great performance. It wasn’t about the look for me—I wasn’t going for a conventional look. I wanted to cast a woman with strong features. As soon as I met Rukiyat Masud, the main lead, I knew she was the one.
With Jessica, the little girl who plays the little boy with a cleft lip in the film, I wanted to use a child with a real-life condition, especially because it’s an indie film with a small budget. We visited a couple of hospitals in remote areas because those conditions are more common there. A lot of mothers in those hospitals were embarrassed showing us their children with these conditions, and didn’t understand how it had happened. People with better access to information can research what is happening to their children, but some of the women in these communities thought they had been bewitched.
The GRAFT Foundation (Ghana Reconstruction of Anomaly and Trauma Fund) does free surgeries for children with deformities, and connected us with families who might be willing to work with us.
Your film seems to have a much higher production quality than many of the Ghanaian and Nigerian films I’ve seen in the past. What do you think about the state of the film industry in Ghana these days in terms of production capacity and talent?
I think we have a long way to go. You don’t have to go to film school to become a good filmmaker, but you do need to educate yourself on production techniques. I think that a lot of filmmakers in Ghana just got a camera and ran with it. That’s fine, but for someone who wants to pursue the craft more seriously, you have to do your homework about the filmmaking process.
A large roadblock is funding: you need money to make a good movie. We don’t even have a film commission in Ghana. There are no cultural funds or grants for filmmakers. Most filmmakers struggle to make the most out of their small budgets. It would be great if the Cultural Ministry could help filmmakers, and filmmakers should push themselves to learn the storytelling craft.
Some Ghanaian filmmakers also shy away from telling more realistic stories of their history, their story, and their culture. Many of them are escapist movie set within the upper class, which isn’t the life of the majority.
I read that childreN of the mountaiN is the first Ghanaian full-length feature film produced in Ghana by a Ghanaian and to be recognized by a major international film festival. Is that true?
I don’t know. From what they tell me, I think so. Everyone’s heard about Beasts of No Nation, but it was directed by Cary Fukunaga. Leila Djansi, and Shirley Frimpong-Manso have made quite a few productions, but I don’t think any of them have been in the major film festivals.
Can you walk me through the process of finding a film distribution and how you get featured in a film festival as prestigious as Tribeca?
You make the film and submit it to various festivals. It’s competitive. There are a lot of festivals out there, but a handful of very prestigious ones. Those are the festivals that distributors will attend. I took the traditional route and pitched to the big ones. I didn’t know anyone in the Tribeca Film Festival, so I guess the film spoke for itself. During the festival screenings, you invite distributors to come and if it works for their territory, they’ll approach you with an offer.
What’s next for you? Do you think any of your future films will be set in Ghana?
I have two other scripts I’m working on at the moment, and both are set in Ghana. One is a period piece that is being co-produced with a team in the Netherlands and France. The other is split between New York and Ghana. Being a Ghanaian-American, I love Ghana so much and want to feature it in my films. Africa has rich cultures that we should highlight as storytellers.